Old Traditions, Modern Stories
Yoruba in The Brothers Size
By Sara Rademacher

Growing up in African American neighborhoods in the South, playwright Tarell McCraney encountered the stories of Yoruban culture as a youth. As he began writing plays, his interest in the Yoruba myths grew, eventually inspiring his trilogy, The Brothers/Sister Plays, of which The Brothers Size is the second installment.

"West African mythology is alive and present in various retentions across the southern portion of America...these old traditions have merged into culture, music, food in the African-American cosmology," McCraney said in an interview "The tradition of keeping those stories alive and using them to tell stories about African-Americans in the most urban way is nothing new...we call it sampling in Hip-Hop. So I was interested in keeping that tradition in the theatre. Merging the old with the new. And listening to the discourse it created in the space."

McCraney may have also been inspired by his work with great African-American playwright August Wilson (McCraney was Wilson's assistant on Radio Golf at Yale). Wilson embraced the challenge of creating a body of plays to help African Americans more fully embrace the African side of what he described as their "double consciousness." Both Wilson and McCraney referenced the Yoruban stories in order to connect a modern audience with an ancient heritage, and, by the same token, to connect an old culture with a contemporary audience.

The Yoruba are a cultural group that includes up to 40 million people, with their homeland in Southwestern Nigeria. As a result of the African Diaspora (the Yoruba were one of the largest groups of African peoples enslaved in the 19th century), Yoruban practices and beliefs spread across the globe, intertwining with existing beliefs and rituals of other cultures. The cultural combinations gave rise to hybrid faiths such as Candomble, Santeria and Voodoo. These neo-Yoruban religions and rituals remain prominent in many areas of the United States, particularly in the South.

McCraney named the three characters of The Brothers Size after three prominent Yoruban Orishas, or deities: Ogun, Oshoosi, and Elegba. Though the Yoruba religion is comprised of a pantheon of over 400 deities, McCraney's use of these three Orisha names gives us a unique insight to the characters of his play. Not unlike Catholic saints, the Yoruban Orishas are prayed to for guidance and to help in particular aspects of a person's life. Some Orishas are believed to take human form and live with mortals on earth. The Orisha stories and characteristics have been passed down through generations and across the globe through oral tradition.

The Orishas in The Brothers Size

  • Ogun is known as the god of iron working. He is the patron deity of all those who use metal in their occupation, from mechanics with their wrench to surgeons with their scalpel. He is also known as a mighty warrior who presides over deals and contracts.
  • Oshoosi is the divine hunter who is associated with the human struggle for survival. He is thought to be cunning, intelligent, and cautious. In many versions of Oshoosi's story, he is said to be the brother of Ogun.
  • Elegba is the guardian of the crossroads of life, but is also well known for being the Orisha of chaos and trickery. He often leads mortals to temptation in the hopes that the experience will ultimately teach them a lesson and cause them to mature.